Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Tips for writing a PhD thesis

I've been thinking a lot recently about whether or not I regret undertaking a PhD. This is mainly because today is my deadline. My writing up year has finished. I haven't though. I still have a lot of writing to do, and although I've done a lot of work over the past six weeks or so, the finish line doesn't seem to be getting any closer. Thankfully I have very supportive supervisors, who are very much on my side, and have been really understanding with how much I've struggled to balance full time work and PhD writing, and with the mental health difficulties I've had over the past four years.

If you'd have asked me at the beginning of summer whether I regretted starting a PhD, I'd have definitely said yes. I was working the most stressful and poorly paid job I've ever had, and I've never felt so undervalued. I loved working with children, a lot of the adults less so.  If you ask me now about whether I regret starting a PhD, I'm less certain. I've landed in my dream job, that would have been impossible without the unpaid work I did while I was studying, the only time I've been able to consistently volunteer, because I was fortunate enough to be fully funded for three years.

Either way, I can't wait for it to be over, it's drained so much from me, and I can't wait to be able to sit at home doing nothing without feeling guilty about not working, to be able to look forward to leaving work knowing that I can relax, I mostly can't wait to start tackling the massive stack of books I haven't read for the last four years.

I've also been thinking about how many pieces of advice I've ignored, or wish I had heard, and thought perhaps I can use this weird reflective moment to try and be of use to other people. So here are my top tips, specifically for writing the thesis. (I'll give you a bonus tip about applying: THINK VERY CAREFULLY ABOUT WHETHER A PHD IS THE RIGHT THING FOR YOU- can you get to where you want to be without? if so, do that instead):

  • Every time you read an article, book or chapter, or hear an interesting conference paper or lecture, don't just write a list of quotes, try and immediately formulate some writing in response to it, even if it's just a summary of ideas. Basically just write write write from the start.
  • Agree regular deadlines for written work with your supervisors from the start. If they're quite laid back, impress on them how important it is for you to have strict and regular deadlines to work to. 
  • Make friends with the university librarians and library assistants. I was lucky in this respect, as I worked in the library. They are your best PhD allies. 
  • Find a good way of managing your physical and digital work. Scrivener is great for organising documents, unfortunately I acquired it quite late in my PhD. Writing such a lengthy piece of work is an inherently fragmented process, try and keep your files and papers organised, even when your head isn't. When reading/ editing I work better from paper, if you have loads of printouts of your own work at various stages of completion, make sure you date it or recycle it if it's no longer needed. On the front of printed articles, it's useful to write a one sentence summary, not about what the article is about, but about how it's useful for you. 
  • Don't try and reinvent the conventions of a thesis. Yeah the standard formula of PhD theses is tedious, and the temptation to try and make the process more interesting and creative is high, but only like three people are ever going to read it, so just tick the boxes and get it done, you can write your masterpiece later.
  • Speak at conferences, write articles/book chapters, but make sure anything you do can be reconfigured with minimal effort into your thesis- don't make more work for yourself, likewise with any upgrading written work early on, try and use it as an opportunity to draft an introduction or a methodology chapter.
  • Teach if possible. Try and leave room in seminars/lectures for conversations. MA students are good at giving feedback without even realising it, plus they're not too jaded by academia yet, like other PhD students.
  • If you find high theory dense, inaccessible, dull and unhelpful- don't try and write it.
  • If you have a good relationship with your supervisors, always take their advice. They're trying to help you get a PhD. 
  • If you have a good relationship with your supervisors, tell them when they're wrong. (obviously contradicts previous point, but hear me out). Towards the end of your PhD (maybe even from the start), chances are you're more of an expert in your specific field than your supervisors. It's okay to say "actually, I'm not going to take your suggestion, I don't think it's important to focus on that", “that’s not really the direction I want to take with this” etc.
  • Talk about your work with your friends, especially those also doing PhDs, as you can offer each other advice, and they're more likely to humour you. Some of my biggest breakthroughs have been from conversations with friends from different disciplines over a pint.

and these are the most important ones:
  • If you are working full time, and writing your PhD full time, seek help from the doctoral school/administrators, it's not feasible, and it's not usual. don't kill yourself trying to make it work.
  • Mental health always trumps PhD. Don't cut yourself off from friends, don't stop doing the things you enjoy out of guilt. You don't need to devote every waking second to your PhD. Look after yourself.
  • Don't take yourself too seriously. Unless you're becoming an actual real doctor, no one cares you're doing a PhD except for you, and nor should they.
  • And finally, some advice for those who spend a lot of time with people doing their PhD: if they say "fine thanks" when you ask them how it's going, it means "don't ask me any more questions about it", PhD students spend so much time thinking about and talking about their work- don't feel you need to show any interest, they probably appreciate the break.

On the plus side, when this is all said and done I will have earned a gender neutral title at last.

Wish me luck, but don't ask me how it's going.